Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pacific Standard and Why Americans Are Outliers

I'm not sure where I got the link to this article on a site called Pacific Standard ( Maybe it was Maggie Koerth-Baker or someone else I follow on Twitter.

The story sat open in a browser tab for weeks. It's very long, and even the headline, lead in, and first several paragraphs didn't tell me what it was about enough to summarize it when I did a recent too-many-tabs round up.

Yesterday while watching the mop-up on the Boston bomber manhunt, though, I finally dove into its depths. But first, a message about its sponsor.

What is Pacific Standard magazine?

The site is attractive and professional-looking and the article seemed authoritative, but who are these people and why should I trust what they say?

Like all good web sources, they have an About link (at the bottom of the page) and I soon found out the print magazine has been around for six years. It's published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which was created by the founder of SAGE Publications, Sara Miller McCune. SAGE is the publisher of a lot of social science journals, from political science to education, sociology, and psychology.

She says,

Over the years, as one trailblazing article or book after another came across my desk at SAGE Publications, I would worry about how to get these important ideas to a wider audience. I founded the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy to do just that by pairing experienced journalists with the researchers and experts who scientifically scrutinize the nation’s biggest issues relating to education, justice, the environment, and the economy….

Pacific Standard’s goal is to be the publication that explains the deeply researched work that is, and that should be, changing policy. We endeavor to give our readers the tools—in the form of lively reportage and robust research findings—to answer the most vexing problems facing the world today.
So Pacific Standard is a popularizing magazine for academic research in the social sciences, work that has implications for public policy. While the academic publishing industry is far from perfect (it's created by humans, after all), I like to think that it's closer to a model that works than many other human institutions. So why not have good writers synthesize and report on the findings of a range of interdisciplinary social science publications?

Sort of like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer with better references.

About the story

Called We Aren't the World by Ethan Watters, it reports on the work of Joe Henrich. He was an anthropology graduate student in the mid-1990s, who went to study the Machiguenga of Peru, a hunter-farmer people who had had little contact with outside cultures. But instead of carrying out traditional ethnographic study, Henrich administered a series of "ultimatum tests" with inhabitants.

This test is given to two people at once. One person gets an amount of money and is told that s/he should offer any amount of the money s/he wishes to the other person. The other person can accept or reject it. But the catch is, if the second person rejects it, neither person gets anything, so there is a clear incentive to offer at least something.

This test has been given many times to college students in the U.S. as part of psychological and economics research, but it had rarely been tried anywhere else. Behavioral economists love this test because traditional economics says that rational people should offer as little money as possible, and accept even the smallest amount offered, since no matter what, you come out ahead of where you started.

But that's not what has been found when studying Americans. We generally offer about half the money, and if we don't, the other person rejects the offer.

Wow, say the behavioral economists, people are irrational and they expect fairness. What a finding!

Did that finding hold up among the Machiguenga? Nope. What Henrich found was that the Machiguenga thought the test was absurd:
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
Other cultures whose members were later tested had even more divergent results from Americans -- from giving almost nothing to gift-giving cultures where the giver would offer 60 percent and the other person would reject it because s/he didn't want to feel beholden.

Basically, there was no "human" truth about behavior in this test.

What happened to Henrich?

Joe Henrich finished his research and tried to get an academic teaching position in anthropology. He ran into trouble with potential colleagues who questioned his methods. So he ended up being offered an interdisciplinary position at the University of British Columbia in economics and psychology instead, and found two colleague there with whom he has since published, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan.

What they have proceeded to find is that Americans are outliers on almost every test you can give to humans. From the Muller-Lyer Illusion to rerunning the work of Soloman Asch, they found that Americans are at one end of the human spectrum:
Asch had discovered that test subjects were often willing to make incorrect judgments on simple perception tests to conform with group pressure. When the test was performed across 17 societies, however, it turned out that group pressure had a range of influence. Americans were again at the far end of the scale, in this case showing the least tendency to conform to group belief.
The paper Henrich and his colleagues wrote ended up being titled The Weirdest People in the World, where weird is an acronym for Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. "Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds."

There's a lot more in the article, but I'll leave it for you to read.

Back to Pacific Standard

That's just one article from the magazine.

The site looks incredible and I'll be returning regularly to see what they turn up.

I'm a little scared of it, honestly, because I've got enough to read already. But it's probably a good idea to read less news so I have time for more thought. Maybe I'll even subscribe, both to support their work and to get the advantage of reading it on paper, the better to underline to my heart's content.

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